Peace Corps Volunteers
Attack Environmental Challenges
in the Former Soviet Bloc

By Kristin Wennberg



There are several ways to reach Peace Corps Volunteer Margo Banner. You can phone her during business hours. Or send a fax to the non-profit where she works. You can drive to her flat through the belching smokestacks and twisting rusty pipes that make up Chemo-petrol, the largest chemical factory in the Czech Republic. Or pass through the rubble of Libkovice, an 800-year old village recently razed to make way for an ever-expanding open-pit coal mine. The huge gaping wound in the earth lurks just a few hundreds yards away from the shell of the St. Nicholas church, one of Libkovice's few remaining buildings.

To most people - especially prospective environmental volunteers - phones and faxes and heavy industry doesn't sound like Peace Corps at all. Game preserves in Africa or the rain forests of Central America might be more like it. But welcome to the former Soviet Bloc, where Westernization of the cultures and familiar landscapes set a seductive, yet deceptive, backdrop to the vast environmental challenges facing Peace Corps volunteers in this region.

Right now, almost 100 environmental volunteers are working in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. For many of them, hiking in the Tatras or sporting business wear as they walk down quaint cobblestone streets is the norm. But they tell you not to be deceived by the Old World charm, fast food outlets, or the prevalence of the English language. In fact, you don't have to scratch too far below the surface to find a strange world where the continued fallout from the life and death of communism makes for Peace Corps environmental programs like none other.

The Soviet model of industry - production at any cost - has created obvious long-term environmental problems. But 40 years of totalitarian rule has left other, more subtle legacies. For one, good information is sometimes still guarded like a state secret. Bruce Abrams, a volunteer working for a regional office of Hungary's Ministry of the Environment, is encouraging his agency to teach small communities how to identify environmental problems and bring in expertise to help solve them. But it hasn't been easy."

The information flow has been dammed up for years because it wasn't in your best interest to share information, so many mayors don't even know that the regional environmental center exists," he explains. "When I tell my agency that we should work with mayors because we have this environmental information that they can use, they say the mayors should pay for the information. I counter with 'you're being paid by the taxpayers' money to get that information, so it should be funneled back.' Then I get these bewildered looks and I go into my Civics 101 thing. But I have to be careful because this not America, and there's a fine line to walk when you start commenting on "how civil society works" because it's still their civil society, and not mine."

Then there's a lack of environmental awareness on the part of the general population. True, the environmental movement was a major catalyst in the fight for freedom, but many now say that environmental protest was simply a conduit to channel rage and frustration. These days, most citizens are simply trying to keep up with the changes brought by a free market economy.

One volunteer in Hungary did a survey in his town to find out what people thought were the most pressing environmental issues facing their community. The number one answer was noise pollution from the new disco, despite the fact that the town's rotting garbage landfill regularly ignited from spontaneous methane fires.

It's not that ignorance is rampant. The levels of education in these countries is among the highest in the world. Shirleen Rodriguez, a volunteer working with the environmental group Pcola in Eastern Slovakia, says, "I think people here are very smart, but a lot of these ideas about environmental protection are new ideas. I just don't think they have a good grasp of how polluted things really are."

In fact, most of the volunteers work with counterparts who are highly educated specialists in their field. This, coupled with the fact that age equals respect in this part of the world, makes it harder for younger, less experienced volunteers to make their mark. For some, simply communicating another side to an issue is an achievement in what can be an otherwise frustrating experience.

"My colleagues here are extremely well educated and they know a lot more about conservation than I do because they've been working in the field for years," says Matt Killebrew, a 24 year-old volunteer working for the Kiskunsag National Park in Hungary. "I think the most valuable thing I can contribute here is a unique perspective on situations where you're always under the constant stress of trying to get things done under budget constraints, when it's hard to see different ways around problems."

Indeed, now that free-market economies exist, money is the bottom line. Millions of jobs are tied to polluting factories and outdated nuclear power plants, strip-mining and clear cutting, and tourists flocking to once-forbidden territory. The commonly-held belief that free-market forces will automatically give birth to a better environment is complicated by the fact that many polluting industries are still owned by the state.

And governments don't make it easy for fledgling NGOs to fight for the environment either. Common tactics like lobbying, litigation and direct-mail campaigns are hampered in many countries by ambiguous new environmental laws and postal systems that don't give non-profits a break. But where NGOs need help the most is with developing effective organizational and management skills.

"They're highly enthusiastic, but hopelessly romantic about environmental activism," says volunteer Margo Banner, who works with the NGO Green House Litvinov in the notorious "Black Triangle" area in the Czech Republic. "You're most likely to encounter people who are building the world's largest pile of toy guns or planning a bicycle rally, but who have no concept of how to set priorities, fundraise, work with the media, or build membership."

Where they can be very effective is in building public awareness and participation. But it's a long road to getting citizens to truly understand the environmental problems surrounding them and motivating them to take an active role in solving these problems. "The area in which NGOs have made an impact is with public education, especially for youth," says Margo Banner. "It will probably take years to develop democracy, but these early years are critical in shaping a system where participation means more than simply voting."

The national park systems are also starting to encourage public involvement in nature and wildlife preservation by implementing environmental education programs. In the Low Tatras National Park in Slovakia, Volunteer Doug Hoff is working on a sustainable tourism project that involves closing off roads and trails that cut through animal habitats, and then building new trails and a picnic shelter, restoring shepherds' cottages and a preserving an old forestry dam, all marked with new information panels.

Hungary Volunteer Matt Killebrew has written a brochure outlining an interactive self-guided tour to encourage school kids, tourists and the local community to visit the nature sanctuary housing his park's headquarters in Kecskemet.

In the end, once they look beyond the medieval castles and smokestacks, environmental volunteers here still ask themselves the timeless Peace Corps question; Am I really making a difference?

If you want to feel good about what you're doing look at the long-term, suggests Slovakia environmental volunteer Steve Shipe, who also served as a volunteer in St. Kitts in the mid-1980s. "I'm not thinking that I have to accomplish everything here in the 2 years or I'll be a failure. That's the view I've adopted and that's helped me a lot."

"So many things have to change here, and you need to make people aware of alternatives," says Shirleen Rodriguez. "Whether change happens on a grassroots level is something I think about a lot, but I think that's where we as environmental volunteers can really do a lot."

Those interested in information about becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer can call (800) 424-8580, press 1, and be connected to their local recruitment office. Please visit our web site at www.peacecorps.gov .


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